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I won't take a token cut in my pay: Ahern

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern yesterday refused to back down on his €38,000 pay increase, saying to return it would be "pure tokenism".

But a senior Government source said last night that deferring the increases should be discussed at next Tuesday's Cabinet meeting.

"It would be a help in the context of the national pay talks when some belt-tightening will be expected across all sectors. I personally have no problem with putting it back for 18 months to two years," the source said.

Opposition to the pay increases is also growing, within FF, with senior figures in the party admitting that it has contributed significantly to the party's slump in last week's opinion polls, the worst in 20 years.

But, a spokesman for the Taoiseach insisted he would be taking the money, the first salary review in seven years.

The pay increases come only weeks after Tanaiste Brian Cowen, at his pre-budget estimates briefing, made clear that we are now facing a bleaker period for the nation's finances, saying things would be "very tight".

It emerged yesterday that the Cabinet could have turned the money down but they chose to accept it, leading to calls from within Fianna Fail that the Cabinet is "desperately out of touch".

Speaking to the Sunday Independent yesterday, Mr Ahern said: "I would favour reviews that are more regular, say every three years. If that happened, then such hikes as the one just awarded wouldn't be so large."

The Taoiseach's spokesman said the pay increases were awarded by an independent review body and were primarily aimed at rewarding civil servants, judges and semi-state CEOs. He insisted that the political increases only form a small part of the overall package.

But former junior minister Ned O'Keeffe TD, who last week turned down a committee chairmanship from Bertie Ahern, yesterday condemned the increases, saying the Government has become bloated and arrogant.

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Speaking to the Sunday Independent, he said: "The polls are the worst we have had since the mid-1980s, they're very bad for FF. It's been one disaster after another since the election. We had Shannon, the HSE crisis, the driving licence nonsense. We're in real trouble."

Mr O'Keeffe said the body that awarded the pay increases is "not connected with reality" and that the Cabinet should have refused to accept the increase.

"How can people who are earning huge sums of money and are wealthy men have any idea what is going on in the real world. If I was at the table I would have spoken out against them given what's happening on the ground," he said, branding the increases as "disgraceful".

"It's a joke. We have a raft of unnecessary junior ministers costing a fortune. We have 23 committee chairs when all we really need are seven. The whole lot are out of touch of what is going on."

Despite earlier claims that no submissions were made to the Review Body on Higher Remuneration, the Sunday Independent has learned that the Department of Finance made submissions to the body on behalf of the Government.

"Traditionally, politicians don't make individual submissions to the review body. The Department of Finance made submissions on behalf of Government, not just on behalf of ministers or the Taoiseach," said a spokesman for the Department of Finance said.

Despite the attempts of several ministers to distance themselves from the controversy, it emerged yesterday that the Cabinet voted to accept the pay increases. They have been criticised for trying to pass the buck on to civil servants.

Apart from Mr O'Keeffe, several other FF TDs have said the Taoiseach and his ministers should refuse the money as was the case by a previous government in 1994. Others have called on the process of how the rates are calculated to be fully transparent.

John Moloney (Laois/ Offaly) said there is a lot of disquiet within the Fianna Fail organisation and among the public as to what is going on.

"There is huge annoyance. The pay rise is one of the main reasons, but for me the driving licence is the one that has angered most people," he added. It is believed that TDs and other civil servants will benefit significantly as a knock-on effect from last week's pay hike for the Government and senior civil servants.

Despite the furore, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny was unavailable for comment yesterday. In contrast, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore was highly critical.

"It is unforgivable to accept such significant pay increases at a time when the people on the ground are suffering most," he said.

"The Government is caught up in their third-term swagger. They are completely out of touch. They should of course decline the pay increases."

Outside of politicians, Dr John Crown, a front-line cancer specialist at St Vincent's Hospital, said that none of the pay increases are justified and all should be refused.

"This Government said there wouldn't be cuts in the HSE after the election and look what happened. They played us for fools and we're now paying the price."

Conor MacLiam, the husband of Suzie Long, who died recently after her high profile battle with cancer, said that given the nature of the cuts in the HSE the pay increases were "truly shocking".

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